The value of stocked trout
No one likes changing course in midstream.
It's a metaphor with far-reaching applications that's based on the notion of changing directions in a boat moving in flowing water.
Ever tried turning a canoe against the current?
It's not easy.
It's not fun.
You get the picture.
I had rigged my spinning rod, loaded my vest with the appropriate spinning lures and tackle and made my way from camp down to the bank of Penns Creek April 18.
After making several casts, I noticed the water around me starting to boil.
Trout were rising everywhere.
I kept chucking my Ä-ounce gold spoon, all the while thinking, "I really ought to get my fly rod, but I don't want to walk all the way back to camp and re-rig."
The rising trout continued to feed.
And even though I only caught flashes of fish as the native browns deftly plucked blue-winged olives off the surface before turning tail and diving deep, I knew some of them were good trout.
Trout that would fight mightily on 6x tippet attached to a 9-foot rod.
The feeding frenzy finally won me over.
I got out of the creek, trudged back to camp, switched all my gear to fly tackle, then returned to my spot waist-deep in the chilly flow.
A hefty brown whacked a fly right in front of me, and I started making false casts.
When it felt right, I dropped the fly upstream of the spot where the trout rose, then shoved the rod tip hard to my left to lay down the fly line for a dragless drift.
I watched the little puff of hair and feather float to about the right spot, then "WHAM!"
The brownie hammered my fly and the fight was on.
True to form, this Penns Creek wild trout gave me all it had.
I worried about the strength of my whisper-thin tippet when the trout made a couple of strong runs downstream, but it held.
Eventually, I led the impeccably colored trout to my hand.
There's no mistaking the look of a native brown when compared to a stocker.
The colors and markings of the natives are sharper and more pure.
This 15-incher had solid shoulders, crisp fins and a broad tail -- a predator built for speed and power.
It was a perfect specimen, illustrating why Penns Creek is so revered as a wild-trout fishery in Pennsylvania.
I quickly plucked my fly out of its mouth and set the trout free.
The browns rose for another three hours or so, giving my brother-in-law, Jeff Brown, of Elizabethtown, and I some fantastic action.
But the next day, 40 mph winds blew until a torrential rain fell, which turned Penns into a roiling, chocolatey mess.
Fortunately, we were camped in Poe Paddy State Park, which, besides being a favorite launching point for Penns Creek fishing excursions, also is home to Big Poe Creek.
Big Poe is handsomely stocked with trout by the Pennsylvania Fish & Boat Commission.
It's a small rocky stream that doesn't have anywhere near the nutrient base that makes Penns Creek so fertile for wild trout.
But then again, it also isn't as prone to getting "blown out" by heavy spring rains.
I'm sure there are many places across the state where stocked-trout waters and wild-trout waters coexist side by side like Penns and Big Poe creeks.
(Big Poe actually dumps into Penns Creek in Poe Paddy.)
This just happens to be the place I know best.
With the recent talk about more potential cuts to the PFBC's trout-stocking program -- over the past 15 years, the program has basically been cut in half, from 6.3 million trout raised and stocked in 1998 to 3.2 million this year -- and the boom in additions to the state's list of wild-trout waters, I've been wondering what Pennsylvania would be like as a strictly wild-trout state.
I don't think I would like it.
No doubt, I prefer fishing for native trout, but my recent excursion would have been cut short without the stockers.
"I would hope there is room for both," said James Wellendorf, an avid trout angler from East Hempfield Township, who serves as vice president of Donegal Chapter of Trout Unlimited.
"Assuming you would have to cut back on keeping trout to have only wild trout, I don't think that's fair to the people who like to keep and eat trout."
According to John Arway, the agency's executive director, there is no push within the agency to favor wild trout over stockers.
"Wild trout don't compete with stocked trout and stocked trout don't compete with wild trout," he said.
The list of "wild-trout waters" designated by the PFBC has been growing in recent years simply because biologists across the state have intensified their surveys of streams to find where wild trout are living.
Money -- or a lack of it -- has been the primary reason for the reduction in the number of stocked trout over the past 15 years, according to Arway.
"Raising trout is expensive," he said. "The stocking program represents a quarter of our budget."
Inflation, aging infrastructure and a loss of anglers are among the reasons the PFBC has cut the number of stocked trout from 6.3 million in 1998 to 3.2 million this year.
Locally, Lancaster County has seen its annual allocation of trout fall over that period from 135,000 to 91,000.
Within the past few months, the PFBC entertained the idea of closing its Oswayo and Bellefonte hatcheries as part of a larger effort to reduce operating expenses by about $9 million.
Those closures would have cut the number of stocked trout the agency rears by another 785,000.
But that plan ultimately was scrapped.
"We know stocked trout are important to our anglers," Arway said.
He could not say, however, if more cuts in the stocking program are coming in the future.
"The fact is we have these expenses out there that have to be met and the money has to come from somewhere," he said.
The PFBC is lobbying the state Legislature for financial help, since "we are a state business that needs reinvestment," Arway said.
Raising license fees, however, is not up for consideration.
"We've done that three times, and every time we saw an 8-10 percent drop in license sales," he said. "We don't need to be driving people away from the sport."
So as long as there are funds to pay for them, the PFBC will continue with its trout-stocking program, while it simultaneously identifies and protects streams harboring wild trout.
That's a good thing, says Wellendorf.
"People who want to catch and keep stocked trout have places they can go, and people who want to catch and release wild trout have places they can go," he said. "That's the way it should be."
P.J. Reilly is a Sunday News outdoors writer. Email him at email@example.com